London tribute to Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum Rabbani honors her contributions to conservation and the arts
LONDON — The late Madame Ruhiyyih Rabbani, the preeminent international dignitary of the Baha'i Faith, was honored at a tribute here on 15 May 2001. In attendance were some 150 prominent people, including HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
Organized by the Arts for Nature, a 13-year-old organization that seeks to draw leading artists and performers into the environmental vanguard, the tribute was held at Canada House in Trafalgar Square. It featured an evening of music and drama, much of it produced especially for the occasion and using the writings of Madame Rabbani.
"We can be convinced academically and intellectually that conservation is important, but what's also important is that we are involved in this issue emotionally," said Prince Philip in extemporaneous remarks at the end of the evening. "Madame Rabbani made a huge contribution to raising awareness in this field, and this has been a marvelous experience and a splendid evening."
An author, filmmaker and lecturer who cared deeply for the environment and indigenous peoples, Ruhiyyih Rabbani passed away on 19 January 2000. She was, further, a Hand of the Cause, the highest position occupied by individuals in the Baha'i Faith, and she played an important role in promoting the unity and integration of the Baha'i community over the years.
The evening tribute was organized largely by the Duchess of Abercorn, the chair of the Arts for Nature. The event began with dinner and a viewing of some of Prince Philip's private collection of nature paintings, in particular the work of Canadian wildlife artists. In addition, architectural drawings by the distinguished Canadian architect, William Sutherland Maxwell, Madame Rabbani's father, were displayed.
The main focus of the evening was a theatrical performance entitled "A Life So Noble," which had been inspired by Ruhiyyih Khanum's life. Written by Canadian-born actress/writer Beverley Evans and directed by Annabel Knight, the show took four major aspects of Khanum's life and character and personified them in four women actresses, who told her story using words taken from Ruhiyyih Khanum's own lectures and writings.
The actresses -- Maria Friedman, Beverley Evans, Sarah Clive and Kerry-Ann Smith -- conveyed with extraordinary power and emotion the breadth of Madame Rabbani's achievements. There were deeply moving moments, including a scene depicting the funeral of Shoghi Effendi when thousands of flower petals rained down upon the stage from above. In direct contrast, Ruhiyyih Rabbani's great world travels were portrayed with wit and verve, while a list of her pets and favourite animals caused great amusement.
The actresses were supported by four other women - from Botswana, Macau, Bolivia and Iran -- who wove a floral tapestry as the story unfolded, a metaphor for the rich and varied tapestry that was Madame Rabbani's life.
Other high points included a musical performance of a composition by William Lovelady, set to the words of a poem by Ruhiyyih Khanum, "This is Faith." The evening ended with Ruhiyyih Khanum's own recorded voice, speaking at a meeting in Belfast, where she had told the audience how much she disliked saying goodbye.
The Duchess of Abercorn told the audience that Madame Rabbani had left the world a better place than it was when she had come into it, urging them, like Madame Rabbani, to contribute their "special thread" to the tapestry of life. "I hope that everyone here will pick up their own thread of creativity and quality of spirit and heart, and bring it into every aspect of our lives, because that's what the world is desperately in need of," she said.
Among the guests was Violette Nakhjavani, who accompanied Ruhiyyih Khanum when she traveled and has recently written a book about her life. "I thought it was beautifully done," Mrs. Nakhjavani said of the dramatic narrative. "I was very surprised at the warm response of the audience to the personal details of Ruhiyyih Khanum's life but I felt that she would have approved of presenting Baha'i ideas in such an audacious way."
Born Mary Maxwell in New York City in 1910, Madame Rabbani was the widow of Shoghi Effendi, who headed the Baha'i Faith from 1921 to 1957. As such, she was for Baha'is the last remaining link to the family of 'Abdu'l-Baha, who headed the Faith from 1892 to 1921 and was the eldest son of the Faith's Founder, Baha'u'llah.
In her role as a Hand of the Cause, Madame Rabbani traveled extensively, visiting some 185 countries and territories to encourage the spiritual and moral development of Baha'i communities. She also sought throughout her life to promote environmental conservation. She was, for example, a founding member of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a major interfaith organization that promotes the involvement of religious groups in the conservation efforts.
Madame Rabbani also gave support to the first Arts for Nature event, which was held 26 October 1988 at Syon House in London. Madame Rabbani gave the keynote address, alongside Prince Philip, at the Syon House event, which was organized by the World Wide Fund for Nature-UK and the Baha'i International Community.
Diana Jervis-Read, the Canadian cultural attache, said the commission had been delighted to host the event at Canada House, especially given that Madame Rabbani was raised in Canada.
Every guest received a brochure produced for the event by Peter Maguire and George Ballentyne of UK Baha'i Publishing, as well as a specially compiled illustrated anthology called "Sacred Earth," and a copy of Madame Rabbani's book, "Prescription for Living."
Funds raised at the evening event went towards the Mendelssohn on Mull festival and the Canada House Arts Trust. "There are lots of charity evenings that can be very glitzy, but this was completely different," said Marita Crawley, co-chair of the event, who also wrote a song honoring Madame Rabbani for the event. "Some of the people here knew Madame Rabbani personally, while others were aware of her extraordinary work, but there were people in the audience who were hearing about her for the very first time this evening.
"The play was genuinely thought-provoking and caught the personality of Madame Rabbani, who was truly somebody whose work made the world a better place -- and I think everyone who came tonight left with something very special."
-- Reported by Corinne Podger and Rob Weinberg